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Iran: Election Fraud On Friday?

The upcoming elections in Iran are fascinating, not just because of the issues at play--see Laura Secor's piece for more on that--but because they are taking place in a theocracy with limited political rights and a rating of "Not Free" from Freedom House. This raises the prospect that whatever results emerge on Friday will have been tainted by election fraud.

I talked with Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, about Iran's record of vote tampering. "There have been a lot of accusations in the past," he recalls. "There's probably some reason to believe that in the last election [Mehdi] Karroubi was in second place, and Ahmadinejad never should have been in the runoff." Recall that the pragmatic, center-right former President Hashemi Rafsanjani beat Ahmadinejad in the first round of elections in 2005, only to be bested by him in the runoff. But if Parsi's sources are right and Ahmadinejad actually got third place, then the race would have been between Rafsanjani and Karroubi--and Ahmadinejad would never have become president. Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia who served in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, believes the 2005 election was fixed. "There was every evidence of manipulation in the last election," he tells me, continuing, "The suspicion is that the Revolutionary Guard intervened to pad certain districts."  For his part, Karroubi charged at the time that the Revolutionary Guard, intelligence service, and religious hardliners bribed election officials and threw the results in Ahmadinejad's favor, and claimed to have video evidence proving manipulation (which he refused to release until an official investigation began). He was quickly denounced by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but Rafsanjani joined Karroubi's call for an investigation.

In that race and others, the tamperers' methods went beyond simple vote destruction; other tactics allegedly used by the government included multiple voting and ballot stuffing. Levels of fraud have been uneven. The 1997 presidential election, which resulted in a landslide victory for Mohammed Khatami, was seen as largely fair, a fact Sick credits to the sheer margins involved. "Khatami got 70 percent of the vote in the first round in 1997," he elaborates. "There's not much the government can do about that." In a clever act of political jujitsu, the conservative Council of Guardians used fears of election tampering as an excuse to recount the 2000 parliamentary elections, which reformists dominated. This resulted in more seats for those to the right of Khatami, like former President Rafsanjani. The conservative manipulation of the results was so obvious that Rafsanjani eventually resigned his seat in shame.

Should we be concerned about the elections this week? "There have been a lot of accusations in the Iranian media, especially among reformists, that there are plans to cheat," Parsi tells me. "They have even said that they need to win by five million votes." Any lower margin, he explained, could be erased by the pro-Ahmadinejad Interior Ministry, which conducts the elections. Other sources back up the five million figure; Karim Sadjadpour, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, credits it to the reformist political strategist Ali Reza Alavi-Tabar. "That is consistent with what I have heard from a lot of other people," Sick confirms, "But whether it's one million or five million, I honestly can't say." Sick does, however, think that a true landslide will be impossible to reverse, whereas a close election could be fudged. "If you totally falsify the results, it's going to be completely obvious, and as far as I know they've never tried to do that," he explains.

Where do the Mullahs sit in all this? "The Mullahs are completely split right now," Parsi explains, adding, "There's an accusation right now that the Ayatollah [Khamenei] has instructed people to destroy votes that don't go to Ahmadinejad." A New York Times report yesterday appeared to back up the charge, citing reports from reformist groups that some Interior Ministry officials had released a letter accusing a major cleric of authorizing them to rig the election in Ahmadinejad's favor. (A copy of the letter in Farsi, and English excerpts, can be found here.) "I have seen nothing thus far that makes me believe that the letter itself is not authentic," Sick says, "Curiously, the government has not responded. I thought they would be out with a denial instantly."

In any case, Parsi doubts that what fraud does occur will be challenged. "There are a lot of accusations, and there were a lot of accusations the last time around," he says. "But the result was that the results stood, and the people had to accept that." What would happen if the results were so obviously fixed that they had to be reversed? "There would be a scandal of a scale previously unseen such that I don't know if the system could handle it," he predicts. Would it mean the end of the Islamic Republic? "Not the end of the regime," he clarifies, "but such a blow to its legitimacy."

--Dylan Matthews